The Spirit of Lepanto


Happy Feast of Our Lady of Victories, the Feast of Mary Victrix! This is’s first celebration of its feastday, though since it is Sunday, the liturgical celebration has been suppressed.

I gave a retreat to our tertiaries this weekend, so I was not able to get this up sooner. The following essay is something I began to write for our Knights of Lepanto some time ago, but only now have managed to finish. In a day or so, I will have it permanently inserted in “further reading” under the “Knights of Lepanto” tab.

The parenthetical documentation and marginal numbering in this essay refer to the lines of the poem Lepanto by G. K. Chesterton, unless otherwise indicated. For an excellent edition of that work, see Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton: With Explanatory Notes and Commentary, Ed. by Dale Ahlquist, Minneapolis: American Chesterton Society, 2003. Much of the information here was taken from the essays in that work, describing the background, execution and aftermath of the Battle of Lepanto.

The Spirit of Lepanto

The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee,
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea.
Don John calling through the blast and the eclipse
Crying with the trumpet, with the trumpet of his lips
But Don John of Austria is riding to the sea,
Trumpet that sayeth ha!
Domino gloria!
Don John of Austria
Is shouting to the ships (80-91).

These lines from G.K. Chesterton’s great poem Lepanto indicate the state of affairs in Europe (specifically France and Germany) when in the late sixteenth century Christendom faced the Islamic onslaught of the Turks. It was a time for heroism, but there were few heroes. It was time to rally under the banner of Christ the King and His Holy Mother, but only a remnant of Christian soldiers were prepared thus to fight. These were led by the twenty-four year old bastard son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and half-brother to Philip II, King of Spain, by name Don John of Austria. He was among the few. He stood up and was counted. Don John was the human side of the victory of the Christian fleet at the Battle of Lepanto, October 7, 1571. He was the instrument used by Our Lady of Victory that makes us still remember the fateful event that took place over four-hundred years ago. Every year Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Holy Rosary (formerly the Feast of Our Lady of Victories) because of the triumph at Lepanto.

This brief essay is a reflection upon the spirit of the Catholic resistance at Lepanto, led by Don John under the direction of the Church. This resistance saved Christendom and secured for Western Europe the free practice of the faith. It is a spirit that needs to be recaptured and reinvigorated for our time. It is the spirit of Marian-Chivalry.

The Holy League

The reigning pope at the time, St. Pius V, man of vision that he was (cf. 109-127), knew the peril of Christendom, and personally selected the young nobleman, Don John of Austria for his pure way of life, his unflinching courage, and his clear-sighted conviction that at the heart of the struggle between Christianity and Islam was a cosmic war between truth and error, between the “iron lance” of St. Michael and the black alliance of “Azrael, Ariel and Ammon on the wing” (78, 43). The saintly pope told the young man now charged with the command of the Christian fleet: “Charles V gave you life. I will give you honor and greatness” (Melvin Kriesel, “The Battle,” in Lepanto by G.K. Chesterton: With Explanatory Notes and Commentary, Ed. by Dale Ahlquist, Minneapolis: American Chesterton Society, 2003. 53).

Pius V had also enlisted the help of Spain and Venice, to which he added the Knights of Malta and troops from the Papal States. This became the Holy League led by Don John. On August 14, 1571, vigil of the Solemnity of the Assumption, Cardinal Granvelle, envoy of the Pope met the admiral of the Holy League in Naples, handed him his staff of Office and presented him with the battle standard, representing all Christendom in this conflict against the Ottoman Empire. It was the Banner of the Holy League, designed by St. Pius the V himself. Emblazoned upon a field of blue in honor of Our Lady was a large golden figure of the Crucified. “Below the cross of Christ were the emblems of the king of Spain and of the Holy Father, Pope Pius V, with the badge of the Republic of Venice, all linked by a great golden chain, symbolizing the power of faith that bound them together. From that chain, in slightly smaller scale, hung the pendant crest of Don John.” Cardinal Granvelle said the young prince: “Take these emblems of the Word made flesh, these symbols of the true faith, and may they give thee a glorious victory over our impious enemy and by thy hand may his pride be laid low” (Andrew Wheatcroft, Infidels, Penquin Books, 2004).

Unfortunately, as this glorious witness to the faith took place, the rest of Christian Europe, stood by and risked its complete loss to the Islamic onslaught. The Portuguese King Sebastian expressed some interest but did not supply any troops. Charles IX of France flatly refused to participate, largely due to France’s own preoccupation with the Calvinist revolt. Germany had the same problem under Charles V (father of Don John), and through the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, had even granted recognition to Protestant states within the Empire. England under Elizabeth I was spreading and cruelly enforcing the Protestant heresy, and was not about to respond to a crusade sponsored by the pope (Brandon Rogers, “The Background,” in Lepanto, 46-47).

And so the hearth fires of the Christian home were choked, not only by the fear Islam, but by the internal decay of the Christian mind. The “tangled things and texts and aching eyes” (80) of a spiritless Europe were the reductionism scriptural interpretation of the Protestant Revolution, which would lead to the relativist philosophies of France, and especially Germany. Christians were divided in their convictions and were killing one another (82). The pretender John Calvin had assumed the persona of the Wrath of God (83), and sects of Christian schismatics had made it a hallmark of their “faith” to reject the Woman whom God made worthy to be the Mother of His Son (84).

Only an unwavering conviction in the truth, and the unflinching willingness to die for it, could match the foe which now threatened to silence the lips that spoke the name of Christ. The lips of Don John’s men would be sanctified and emboldened to sound the battle cry. Thus Don John ordered that blasphemy or any doubt of the faith expressed publicly by his men to be punished as sedition (Jack Beeching, The Galleys of Lepanto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983, quoted by Kriesel 54). A milieu of flabby faith had not raised boys to be men, but the firm faith of a boy had made him a leader of men:

For he heard drums groaning and he heard guns jar,
(Don John of Austria is going to the war.)
Sudden and still – hurrah!
Bolt from Iberia!
Don John of Austria
Is gone by Alcalar (68-73).

The Memories of Christian Knights

The ships of the Holy League sailed into the open sea only months after the Sultan, Selim II had initiated an attack against the old crusader kingdom of Cypress under Venetian rule. The Turks captured city after city, and violated all terms of surrender, slaughter and slavery was the fate of the conquered. At the same time Don Juan was being invested in Naples with the command of the Holy League, Marcantonio Bragadino, the Venetian commander of the surrendered city of Famagusta on the island of Cypress was being flayed alive by the Turkish conquerors (Rogers, 48). Cypress was fallen. All of Europe knew now that that the sack of Rome was their next objective. Pope St. Pius V was convinced that if Rome fell, Europe would not hold against the sustained invasion. He intended to strike before the Turks had the opportunity to land on the Roman coast. “I take it for certain that the Turks, swollen by their victories, will wish to take on our fleet, and God–I have the pious presentiment–will give us victory” (Kriesel, 54).

Also fresh in the memory of the Holy League was the defense of Malta that had taken place only six years before in 1565. The Knights Hospitaller, or Knights of St. John (later known as the Knights of Malta) had come to the Island of Malta in 1530, after having been driven by the forces of Suleiman (father of Selim II) from Rhodes in December of 1522. The chronicle from time records that the Grand Master’s galley left the Island of Rhodes, “with a single banner lowered to half mast, on which was painted the picture of the Glorious Virgin Mary in tears, holding her dead Son in her arms, and the inscription Afflictis tu spes unica rebus, that is: In all which afflicts us thou art our only hope” (, accessed 10/07/07).

The transfer of the military order from Rhodes to Malta was only a very small part of a long and venerable history. The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta, as the full name reads today, was founded around 1080 by the brothers of the Benedictine Monastery of Saint Mary Latina in Jerusalem. These monks were committed to help the Christian pilgrims who were often sick or injured due the dangers of traveling in the Holy Land. The Order ran a very large hospital in Jerusalem, and as the Crusades continued into the middle ages, knights came to enter the Order, after which the monks at large assumed a military role. Eventually, proof of noble blood was required for profession of the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and the Order took on the hybrid form of Benedictine monasticism and true brotherhood of chivalry. Other military orders came to exist side by side the Knights of St. John, most notably the Knights Templar, who in spite of their checkered history, were extraordinarily effective in their defense of the faith and the Church.

Returning to the Knights of Malta in the Spring of 1565, thirty-five years after settling in Malta (1530) and six years before the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the knights were being attacked in Malta by Suleiman, again under the command of Piali Capitan-Pasha, whose intent was to exterminate the entire military order of the Knights of Malta. One-hundred thousand Turks laid siege to the island fortress against four-hundred professed knights, and six thousand soldiers led by the Grand Master, Jean Parisot de la Valette. The siege lasted until the Birthday of Our Lady, September 8, 1565, when after having suffered massive losses and confronted with the arrival of a host of twelve-thousand Spanish and Italian reinforcements, the Turks lifted the siege. St. Pius V had at this earlier time appealed to Our Lady, and to the princes of Europe with positive results, and so he had every reason to believe his prayers would again be heard concerning the confrontation in the Gulf of Lepanto.

Men at Arms and God’s Victory

Providence, mediated through the maternal Heart of Mary, brought the natural forces of gallant knights under the influence of supernatural direction and power. Pope St. Pius V sent Don Juan of Austria and the Holy League with rosaries into battle, and he asked all of Christendom to pray along with them and for them. He said: “I am taking up arms against the Turks, but the only thing that can help me is the prayers priests of pure life” (Kriesel, 54). Philip II of Spain had responded to that providence, and although he would prove himself fickle and jealous of his half-brother, Don Juan, he would show himself Our Lady’s instrument, in spite of himself. The year before the Battle of Lepanto, Philip received a parcel from the Archbishop of Mexico City, in New Spain. Don Fray Alonso de Montúfar, having seen the miracles accomplished through the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the tilma of Saint Juan Diego, sent a small reproduction that had been touched to the original to the King, in the hope it would accompany the navy into battle against the Turks. And so it did. King Philip commanded that it be mounted in the cabin of Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria, who commanded 64 of 208 galleys that would be pitched against the much larger fleet of the Sultan (Dale Ahlquist and Peter Floriani, “Notes,” in Lepanto).

On the morning of October 7, 1571 the ships of the Holy League sailed into the Gulf of Lepanto, against the wind. The galley slaves rowed toward the much larger Turkish fleet. They had been unchained and handed weapons, having been promised freedom upon a Christian victory.

Don John of Austria was a true knight, a man of both prayer and action. Pope St. Pius V knew that Don John was a cut above the average man, “someone who in council would rise above pettiness and envy, who in battle would lead without flinching” (Kriesel, 53). During the battle with “crucifix in hand,” Don John went from ship to ship calling out repeatedly to his men: “My children, we are here to conquer or die. In death or victory you will win immortality” (Beeching, quoted by Ahlquist, 29). Under the blue banner of Our Lady, with Her image on Admiral Andrea Doria’s ship, and with the whole of Christendom praying the Rosary the good Don John went confidently into battle.

Just as a century earlier the Maid of Orleans, St. Joan of Arc, had said: “the men will fight, and God will give them the victory,” so John, while confident in prayer, used his wits and his prowess with boldness and determination. According to Melvin Kriesel, Don John was well prepared with a number of surprises. At Lepanto, he introduced into sea warfare for the first time high walled war galleys that were armed with large banks of canons. These he sent well in advance of the rest of his fleet, to “soften up” the enemy, before the main body of the fleets engaged. He also removed from some of his ships their iron rams, which allowed him to use the main canon in these vessels’ bow much more effectively and devastatingly. In addition, he prevented the Muslim soldiers from boarding the Christian ships by having nets “stretched from stem to stern.” When the enemy attempted to board they had the obstacle of the net to tangle with, meanwhile the Christian muskets decimated them. All of this proved devastating to the enemy and helped to bring about a relatively easy victory (Kriesel, 58-59).

But in the end, it was God, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who indeed gave the Don John the victory. When the fleet entered the Bay of Lepanto they had the wind in their faces. The galley slaves struggled to power the fleet into battle, while the much larger Muslim fleet rested and waited with the wind in its favor. But as Don John and his officers knelt in prayer beneath the blue banner of the Holy League, the wind suddenly changed, the Christian sails filled and Our Lady’s host was now suddenly bearing down upon the Turks.

The confrontation that threatened the whole existence of Christendom turned into a rout:

The losses suffered by the Holy League fleet were between seven and eight thousand killed and about twice that number wounded, and only ten or fifteen ships had been sunk during the battle. These losses were comparatively light. Of the three hundred and thirty Turkish ships, fewer than fifty managed to escape and most of them were burned because they could not be made sufficiently seaworthy for further use; one hundred and seventeen Moslem galleys were captured intact and the rest were sunk or destroyed after they had been run ashore by the fleeing Turks. A large majority of the seventy-five thousand men who had entered the battle on the Moslem side were killed , five thousand were taken prisoner (with at least twice that number of Christian galley slaves liberated) , and only a few were able to escape either by ship or by swimming ashore. Turkey , for the first time in several centuries , was left without a navy (, accessed 10/07/07).

New Conflicts and a New Chivalry

The Battle of Lepanto is a parable of Marian Chivalry. A true historical event of the past, it is also a pattern for the future, and an encouragement to those who must face the challenges to the Christian order.

Islam again is a real threat. All necessary distinctions between the ordinary Muslim and the jihadist being made, the Islamic world has never recovered from the fall of the Ottoman empire, and has never forgotten that the Battle of Lepanto was the beginning of the end. Europe again faces the prospect of loosing its Christian identity, this time to Islamic immigration, the advance of secularism and to a pathetically low birthrate.

Just as it was in the sixteenth century, there is now more at work here than militant Islam. Again the “tangled things and texts and aching eyes” have twisted the Christian mind into a mutant form. The Protestantization of the Catholic mind, and worse, the utter secularization and agnosticism of the “faithful” have paralyzed an effective Catholic Action. And in the face of all of it Catholics are told to seek peace, not the peace which only the Lord can give, but the peace of compliance. In the face of attacks against the very name of God, and against the natural law, we are reminded to be pluralistic and to keep our personal convictions to ourselves.

Benedict XVI, the indefatigable enemy of the “dictatorship of relativism,” has the new compromise well spotted. In his now famous lecture to the representatives of science at the University of Regensburg, the Holy Father created quite a stir by pointing out the Islamic compromise with reason; however, what went largely unnoticed by many was his suggestion that the West’s abandonment of faith is not so different from Islamic unreason. The jihadist’s faith is contrary to reason, and this leads to fanaticism. The secularist’s reason, excludes any transcendent authority, and that leads to the abandonment of the natural law. In Iran today, sexual sins are punished by public stoning and lynching. In America we talk about dignifying sodomy with rights of marriage. Neither approach is godly or reasonable.

The West finds itself on the brink once again, but is largely unable to identify the enemy. Our walls are “hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin.” (92). Hopefully we will wake up before it is too late.

In the Ballad of the White Horse, another great epic poem of G.K. Chesterton about the ninth century victory of Alfred the Great of Wessex over the of the Danes, the poet identifies the new barbarianism of today that is a denial of the West’s Christian militant roots:

“By this sign you shall know them,
The breaking of the sword,
And man no more a free knight,
That loves or hates his lord

“Yea, this shall be the sign of them,
The sign of the dying fire;
And Man made like a half-wit,
That knows not of his sire.

“What though they come with scroll and pen,
And grave as shaven clerk,
By this sign you shall know them,
That they ruin and make dark. . . “

It is time to throw away the white flag and face the danger in an honorable way. We may be called “infidels” or “bigots” by the enemies of truth, but no matter, Our Lord was treated as a criminal. We are in the best of company. Don Juan was a man of arms, and a man of honor. Our Lady of Victories is the Queen of Courtesy, and conquers with love and mercy. The great knights of old, like St. Louis of France were gentlemen, who protected the weak and showed courtesy to all. But in defense of the common good, they were quick and devastating in action.

We will learn both courtesy and prowess from Our Lady Herself. The recognition of the Immaculate Virgin as the Mother of Fair Love, the Icon and personification of all that is true, good, and beautiful, which God has given us through his omnipotent creating power, is necessary to the restoration of Christian Culture and common sense. What is not worth fighting and dying for is not worth living for. On the other hand, only that which is beautiful and worthy can be a true motive for honorable behavior. The militant spirit and the truly courteous spirit are one and the same. This is the Spirit of Lepanto.

In his masterful poem In October, also about the Battle of Lepanto, specifically about Our Lady of Victories, G. K. Chesterton bewails the passing of honor: “Where are they gone that did delight in honour. . . ? We no longer delight in honor, but rather in self-gratification. In consequence, the world we would make larger and brighter, becomes an empty chasm:

The doors that cannot shut shall never open
Nor men make windows when they make not walls,
Though the emptiness extends its endless prison
In the white nightmare of its lengthening halls.

We must return to Lepanto and Our Lady of Victories to find what is truly desirable and honorable. Where else shall we go?

Look in what other face for understanding,
But hers who bore the Child that brought the Sword.
Hang in what other house, trophy and tribute,
The broken heart and the unbroken word?

This month of luminous and golden ruin
Lit long ago the galleys and the guns.
Here is there nothing but such loitering rhyme
As down the blank of barren paper runs,

As I write now, O Lady of Last Assurance,
Light of the laurels, sunrise of the dead,
Wind of the ships and lightning of Lepanto,
In honour of Thee, to whom all honour is fled.

This is the Spirit of Lepanto, the Spirit of Marian Chivalry. Our Lady of Victories, pray for us.


24 thoughts on “The Spirit of Lepanto

  1. First of all, thank you for posting your essay, I found it very informative; I will have to read it again in order to fully grasp the true meaning. In today’s day and age of the poison of relativism that runs through the veins of “educated” individuals, we must take up arms, and “educate” ourselves in the way the truth, and the light. This poison lurks not only in the dark places of the world, but it is most prevalent in the great halls of our society. In other words the biggest adversaries to the truth are the ones that run the government, which are suppose to be defining “truth” for their country. Another sad state of affairs is that this relativistic, people pleasing attitude has plagued not only the protestant Christianity, but Catholics as well. If we didn’t have Our Lady to guide us to where the truth is following Our Lord and Savior, all hope for Christianity would be lost. I feel that the unfortunate situation that the Catholic Church in America finds itself in is that of a flock being blindly led into the slaughter house under the guise of “freedom”. As Doug Barry of Radix states in one of his talks, “You never know you’re asleep, until you have woken up.” Please, God wake up your faithful, to fight for you and the honor of Our Lady.

  2. Pingback: Europe » Blog Archives » The Spirit of Lepanto

  3. Pingback: Air Maria » Blog Archive » Our Lady of the Rosary and the Battle of Lepanto

  4. It is no wonder that when we look at history from the perspective of INCLUDING Jesus and Mary, everything makes sense. Our poor children are taught in our secular schools to look at history as if no God exists. No wonder they are so confused and believe that there is nothing worth fighting for. To fight for the honor of Jesus and Mary is the best gift we can be offered, since, in reality, God needs nothing from us, but loves when we give Him EVERYTHING! In this, let us not forget that everything Jesus and Mary do as they give us such great signs as the Battle of Lepanto is to bring mankind into thanksgiving for the miracles They bestow upon believers. It is no accident that Mary’s appearance as of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the New World would also help save the Old World. She, as the Queen of All Nations, gathers Her Son’s wheat into His barn. Now we must unite, as believers, under Her banner, as the Queen of the 3rd Millennium, a title we should all recognize as a result of the consecration accomplished by John Paul II on this date, October 8, in the Great Jubilee Year of Divine Mercy. May this consecration and our prayers to honor it now lead to Her total Victory as we give thanksgiving that, as She promised at Fatima: “… in the end, My Immaculate Heart will Triumph”! Ave Maria!

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  8. Please would you email me the artist and name of the picture, of which there is a detail in your heading, of the Blessed Virgin.
    Thank you.
    Ave Maria

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  14. What an excellent and poignant piece! Thank you! I will share on my FB wall and blog. Very informative and timely. What we surely need to read and what we need to pray for today, Our Lady of Victory, pray for us!

  15. And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise?

    Not quite.

    THis post here angered me as the comments debate, saved on my post here can tell. It made me take a challenge, fulfilled on this post here. Enjoy!

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  17. Pingback: Is it time to form another Holy League? : Knights of Divine Mercy

  18. Knights of Divine Mercy – yes, it’s time to “do the ‘Don John thing’ again, and gather every Catholic men’s apostolate together to form the new Holy League.”
    The original Holy League required the Pope himself to appoint a Supreme Commander, though. What mechanism could be created to coordinate the various “armies” in question here? What leaders are there who could make it happen?
    Perhaps we should pray for God to raise up just such people. Or perhaps more importantly, pray we will recognize and follow them when He does.

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